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The British Library (BL) is the national library of the United Kingdommarker. It is located in Londonmarker and is one of the world's largest research libraries, holding over 150 million items in all known languages and formats; books, journals, newspapers, magazines, sound and music recordings, patents, databases, maps, stamps, prints, drawings and much more. Its book collection is second only to the American Library of Congressmarker. The Library's collections include around 25 million books, along with substantial additional collection of manuscripts and historical items dating back as far as 300 BC.

As a legal deposit library, the BL receives copies of all books produced in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Irelandmarker, including all foreign books distributed in the UK. It also purchases many items which are only published outside Britain and Ireland. The British Library adds some three million items every year.

The Library is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Historical background

The British Library was created in 1973 by the British Library Act 1972. Prior to this, the national library was part of the British Museummarker, which provided the bulk of the holdings of the new library, alongside various smaller organisations which were folded in (such as the British National Bibliography). In 1983, the Library absorbed the National Sound Archivemarker. The core of the Library's historical collections is based on a series of donations and acquisitions from the eighteenth century, known as the 'foundation collections'. These include the books and manuscripts of Sir Robert Cotton, Sir Hans Sloane, Robert Harley and King George III.

For many years its collections were dispersed in various buildings around central London, in places such as Bloomsburymarker (within the British Museummarker), Chancery Lanemarker, and Holbornmarker, with an interlibrary lending centre at Boston Spamarker, Wetherbymarker in West Yorkshire (situated on Thorp Arch Trading Estatemarker) and the newspaper library at Colindalemarker, north-west London. However, since 1997 the main collection has been housed in a single new building on Euston Roadmarker next to St. Pancras railway stationmarker. However, post-1800 newspapers are still held at Colindale, and the Document Supply Centre is still in Yorkshire. The Library also has a book storage depot in Woolwichmarker, south-east London. The new library was designed specially for the purpose by the architect Colin St. John Wilson. Facing Euston Roadmarker is a large piazza that includes pieces of public art, such as large sculptures by Eduardo Paolozzi (a bronze statue based on William Blake's study of Isaac Newton) and Antony Gormley. It is the largest public building constructed in the United Kingdommarker in the 20th century.

In the middle of the building is a four-storey glass tower containing the King's Library, with 65,000 printed volumes along with other pamphlets, manuscripts and maps collected by King George III between 1763 and 1820.

Since 2000 the Chief Executive of the British Library has been Lynne Brindley.

Legal deposit

Interior of the British Library, with the smoked glass wall of the King's Library in the background.
An Act of Parliament in 1911 established the principle of the legal deposit, ensuring that the British Library, along with five other libraries in Great Britainmarker and Irelandmarker, is entitled to receive a free copy of every item published in the United Kingdom. The other five libraries are: the Bodleian Librarymarker at Oxfordmarker; the University Librarymarker at Cambridgemarker; the Trinity College Librarymarker at Dublinmarker; and the National Libraries of Scotlandmarker and Walesmarker. The British Library is the only one that must automatically receive a copy of every item published in the UK; the others are entitled to these items, but must specifically request them from the publisher after learning that they have been or are about to be published, a task done centrally by the Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries.

Further, under the terms of Irish copyright law (most recently the Copyright and Related Rights Act 2000), the British Library is entitled to automatically receive a free copy of every book published in the Republic of Irelandmarker, alongside the National Library of Irelandmarker, the Trinity College Library at Dublin, the library of the University of Limerickmarker, the library of Dublin City Universitymarker and the libraries of the four constituent universities of the National University of Ireland. The Bodleian Library, Cambridge University Library, and the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales are also entitled to copies of material published in Ireland, but again must formally make requests.

In 2003 the Ipswichmarker MP Chris Mole introduced a Private Member's Bill, which eventually passed, becoming the Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003. This Act extends United Kingdom legal deposit requirements to electronic documents, such as CD-ROMs and selected websites. The BL explains its policies on legal deposit here.

Using the Library's Reading Rooms

The Library is in theory open to everyone who has a genuine need to use its collections. Anyone with a permanent address who wishes to carry out research can apply for a Reader Pass; they are required to provide proof of signature and address for security purposes.Historically, only those wishing to use specialised material unavailable in other public or academic libraries would be given a Reader Pass. Recently, the Library has been criticised for admitting numbers of undergraduate students (who have access to their own university libraries) to the reading rooms. The Library replied that they have always admitted undergraduates as long as they have a legitimate personal, work-related or academic research purpose.

Catalogue entries can be found on the British Library Integrated Catalogue, which is based on Aleph (a commercial Integrated Library System). Western Manuscripts are indexed and described on MOLCAT and the Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. The Library's website also offers other specialised catalogues and research services.

According to the website, more than half a million people use the Library's reading rooms every year. The large reading rooms offer hundreds of seats which are often filled with researchers, especially during the Easter and Summer holidays.

Material available online

The British Library makes almost none of its collections available online and free to the public. Its Online Gallery gives access to 30,000 images from various medieval books, together with a handful of exhibition-style items in a proprietary format, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels. This includes the facility to "turn the virtual pages" of a few documents, such as Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks.

The British Library's commercial secure electronic delivery service was started in 2003 at a cost of £6 million. This offers more than 100 million items (including 280,000 journal titles, 50 million patents, 5 million reports, 476,000 U.S. dissertations and 433,000 conference proceedings) for researchers and library patrons worldwide which were previously unavailable outside the Library due to copyright restrictions. In line with a government directive that the British Library must cover a percentage of its operating costs, a fee is charged to the user. However, this service is no longer profitable and has led to a series of restructures to try to prevent further losses.

When Google Books started, the British Library signed an agreement with Microsoft to digitise a number of books from the British Library for its Live Search Books project. This material was only available to readers in the USA, and closed in May 2008.


A number of books are on display to the general public in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery which is open seven days a week at no charge. Some of the items there include Beowulf, a Gutenberg Bible, Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur (King Arthur) Captain Cook's journal, Jane Austen's History of England, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures Under Ground, Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, Charles Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby, Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway and a room devoted solely to the Magna Carta.

Business & IP Centre

In May 2005, the British Library received a grant of £1 million from the London Development Agency to change two of its reading rooms into the Business & IP Centre. The Centre was opened in March 2006. It holds arguably the most comprehensive collection of business and intellectual property (IP) in the United Kingdom and is the official library of the UK Intellectual Property Office.

The Business & IP Centre is separated into two distinct areas:

Business information

The collection is divided up into four main information areas: market research; company information; trade directories; and journals. It is available for free in hard copy and online via approximately 30 subscription databases. You must have a reader pass to access the collection and the databases.

Patent and intellectual property information

There are over 50 million patent specifications from 40 countries in a collection dating back to 1855. The collection also includes official gazettes on patents, trade marks and Registered Design; law reports and other material on litigation; and information on copyright. This is available in hard copy and via online databases. A reader's pass is required to access the collection and database.

Staff are trained to guide small and medium enterprises (SME) and entrepreneurs to use the full range of resources. The Business & IP Centre also offers additional services including:

  • The provision of a networking area for SMEs to meet and network with other SMEs, find out about the Library's full range of services and get inspiration from success stories about products and services conceived by other centre users.

  • Workshops and clinics run by the British Library and its business partners on subjects including: using intellectual property resources to check if ideas are novel, how to protect your ideas & designs, capitalising on market research resources, financing, marketing and selling skills, and pinpointing customers. Some of these workshops have a specific focus on supporting the needs of women, black and Asian minority ethnic groups, and entrepreneurs with disabilities. These are free or charged at a subsidised rate.

  • 'Ask an expert' sessions. These are one-to-one advice sessions with notable business figures. Previous experts have been the late Anita Roddick and Tim Campbell.

  • Events featuring successful entrepreneurs. Previous events have included ‘Winners – The Rise and Rise of Black British Entrepreneurs’, ‘The Asian Advantage’, and ‘Mothers of Invention’. These are available as webcasts.

Sound archive

The British Library Sound Archivemarker holds more than a million discs and 200,000 tapes. The collections come from all over the world and cover the entire range of recorded sound from music, drama and literature to oral history and wildlife sounds, stretching back over more than 100 years. The Sound Archive's online catalogue is updated daily.

It is also possible to listen to recordings from the collection in selected Reading Rooms in the Library through their SoundServer and Listening and Viewing Service, which is based in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room.

In 2006 the Library launched a new online resource Archival Sound Recordings which makes over 4,200 hours of the Sound Archive's recordings available online for UK higher and further education.


British Library Newspapers, Colindale
The British Library Newspapers section is based in Colindalemarker in North London. The Library has an almost complete collection of British and Irish newspapers since 1840. This is partly because of the legal deposit legislation of 1869, which required newspapers to supply a copy of each edition of a newspaper to the library. London editions of national daily and Sunday newspapers are complete back to 1801. In total the collection consists of 660,000 bound volumes and 370,000 reels of microfilm containing tens of millions of newspapers with 52,000 titles on 45 km of shelves.

Among the collections are the Thomason Tracts, containing 7,200 seventeenth century newspapers, and the Burney Collection, featuring newspapers from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Thomason Tracts and Burney collections are held at St Pancras, and are available in facsimile.

The section also has extensive records of non-British newspapers in languages that use the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. The collection is less substantial for languages of the Middle East and the rest of Asia, though some holdings of these are held at the main library in St. Pancras.

Philatelic collections

The National Philatelic Collections are held at the BL. The Collections were established in 1891 with the donation of the Tapling collection, they steadily developed and now comprise over 25 major collections and a number of smaller ones, encompassing a wide-range of disciplines. The collections include postage and revenue stamps, postal stationery, essays, proofs, covers and entries, "cinderella stamp" material, specimen issues, airmails, some postal history materials, official and private posts, etc., for almost all countries and periods.

An extensive display of material from the collections is on exhibit, which may be the best permanent display of diverse classic stamps and philatelic material in the world. Approximately 80,000 items on 6,000 sheets may be viewed in 1,000 display frames; 2,400 sheets are from the Tapling Collection. All other material, which covers the whole world, is available to students and researchers by appointment.

As well as these collections, the library actively acquires literature on the subject. This makes the British Library one of the world's prime philatelic research centres. The Curator of the philatelic collection is David Beech.

Threatened cutbacks to services

In February 2007 it was announced that threatened Treasury cuts to the British Library budget might necessitate cutbacks in services and facilities. The library responded by threatening to charge scholars and researchers for admission, reduce the reading room opening hours, and close the public exhibitions, schools learning programmes and the national newspaper archive in Colindalemarker.

Miscellaneous information

The Library also holds the Asia, Pacific and Africa Collectionsmarker (APAC) which include the India Office Recordsmarker and materials in the languages of Asia and of north and north-east Africa.

The British Library does not specifically serve the legislature. Parliamentmarker has its own libraries, the House of Commons Librarymarker and the House of Lords Librarymarker.

The Guinness Book of World Records currently lists the American Library of Congressmarker as the "World's Largest Library". However, this is based on the shelf space the collection occupies; the Library of Congress states that its collection fills about 530 miles (850 km), while the British Library reports about 388 miles (625 km) of shelves. On the other hand, the Library of Congress holds about 130 million items with 29 million books, as against approximately 150 million items with 25 million books for the British Library.

Paradoxymoron, a trompe l'oeil painting by Patrick Hughes, is on show on the lower ground floor.

The Library has an associated Friends charity called the Friends of the British Library. The charity is located on site at the main library facility in St. Pancras, but is a separate entity from the library itself.

Highlights of the collections

See also


  1. Encyclopædia Britannica Article: British Library
  2. A.N. Wilson, Evening Standard; Tristram Hunt, Guardian.
  3. Onlin Gallery
  4. Socialist Worker article
  6. British Library: The Tapling Collection
  7. Guiness World Records: Amazing Feats: Big Stuff: Library: Largest library
  8. Welcome Message from the Librarian of Congress
  9. The British Library: About us: Did you know?
  10. BL, Facts & figures

External links

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